Dial It Down a Notch, “The Producers”

Posted: July 7, 2009 in Jeff Holland, reviews, theater, Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

It would appear that it is Musicals Week on TQP, for I return after seeing Walnut SThe Producerst. Theatre’s production of “The Producers”!

My feelings on musicals: I like ‘em light. I like the ones that barely have a plot to hang the songs on (“South Pacific” comes to mind); I like the more modern ones like Sondheim or “City of Angels” (actually, it might be my interest in Old Hollywood and detective novels that win that one) that have a more biting wit and elaborate song structures…whatever, I just prefer them have some sense of humor.

To me, the songs make sense when you think of them as internal monologues to melody, and that’s an easier pill to swallow if the observations come from comical insecurities being vocalized. The moment a musical starts taking itself too seriously (and here we’re in Andrew Lloyd Webber territory), a kind of disconnect grows in me.

Maybe it’s because suddenly ALL the dialogue is being sung, so the “internal monologue” structure is gone. They’re singing things that they could be saying in a straight play that might be too bombastic, but might also be a more effective storytelling platform (again, to me, and even then this is only theory – I’m not convinced “Cats” actually HAS a story, so there’s plenty of room for error).

Maybe this is what people mean when they talk about musicals as an American tradition – they were once populist entertainment, something in them for everyone, before they became as serious as any stage drama and lost their sense of pleasant jauntiness in favor of overwrought spectacle. Maybe. I’m just spitballing. Let’s get back to the point:

I’d never seen the musical version of “The Producers,” or the movie adaptation, or in fact heard any of the songs other than “Springtime for Hitler” (the climax of the original film).

While I enjoyed myself – it did what it set out to do, entertain a room full of people with funny jokes and bawdy behavior and such – I also developed a theory on why stage-musical comedies can be annoying: in concept and performance, they have to bat their jokes out to the cheap seats. And so there is no such thing as subtlety.

I’m not even talking “Dry British Wit” subtlety. I mean, “Try not to beat the shit out of a dead horse until there is only a puddle where horse once was.”

One of the greatest lines of the original ’68 film – its iconic line, really – occurs near the end where (minor spoilers on a 40-year-old movie, I guess) producer Max goes out to create the worst play of all time…and audiences end up responding positively. He bemoans his accidental success:

“How could this happen? I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?”

It’s funny – and classic – because he so simply sums up the great irony of a convoluted plot with one brief line of dialogue, which resonates with any viewer who’s ever had things go as wrong as things can go.

The musical, on the other hand, Wants To Make Sure You Got The Joke, and so turns a 24-word line of dialogue into a three-minute, two-man musical number. In fact, most of the songs aren’t useful in the “internal monologue” way; instead they only elaborate on punchlines from the movie that were perfectly good already.

Meanwhile, a major change between the movie and the musical excises entirely the character of the acid casualty chosen to play Hitler (“Awww, man! We can’t bomb Germany! That’s where all my friends are!”), in order to beef up the part of the flamboyantly gay director and his somehow even more flaming sidekick/lover (who makes Chris Kattan’s ‘Mango’ character seem perfectly staid in comparison).

This results in an incredibly long scene devoted to these theatre-queen caricatures. It goes on, and on, and on, well past the point of logic, because it knows the audience will keep laughing at it. Mel Brooks knows that small jokes get lost between audience gaffaws, so he (and the actors, who tailor their performance to the audience’s response) makes whoppers out of every joke that might land.

There are plenty of reasons to like or hate “Family Guy,” but as a gag-delivery-system (which is the way I enjoy it), it’s quite educational. The show either goes for a quick joke (the usual cutaways), or else one that goes so long that the The Producers 1joke itself stops being funny, and a new, secondary line of humor develops from the absurdity of a joke going so much longer than its clear life expectancy (the chicken fight scene, or the inclusion of an entire Conway Twitty performance).

This isn’t the way “The Producers” is funny. There is no sense that Brooks was hoping people would laugh at the unreasonable length of the gag – only that people would laugh harder if gayer and gayer things kept showing up (look, it’s a dancer with a huge package! Look, Leo’s face is in the director’s crotch!). Because that’s the way to sell a joke on the stage.

All this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy myself – I did, though I imagine it’d be a different story if I hadn’t gotten the tickets for free ($70? Really, Walnut St. Theatre?). But I think I was laughing in spite of the explain-it-all songs (not a lot of memorable tunes in there, either) and over-the-top bawdiness. Because I remembered laughing at the original jokes, from the comparatively subtle movie.

On the upside, I can’t wait to sit and watch the REAL Producers once it comes through Netflix.

  1. V.I.P. Referee says:

    So, Holland, tell us—“just HOW BAD WAS IT?!” (line: “It was SO bad…)

    Vaudeville. Burlesque. That’s what musicals have returned to—but without tortured animals or W.C. Fields to distract audiences in between over-the-top musical numbers, they fall flat. I agree with the idea that kooky comedy, preferably something showcasing classic eras of entertainment (“My Man Godfrey” the musical = Good idea; “Grapes of Wrath” the musical = Bad Idea), is the only stuff that could thrive in such an environment and even have an afterlife. Everything else (in musical form) just feels painfully dishonest. But I’m still hopeful that some magic musical number, someday, will hit my sentimentality strings in just the right way.

    “…But I think I was laughing in spite of the explain-it-all songs…”

    Immediately after reading that, I was reminded of an episode of “The Simpsons” that included a “Planet of the Apes” musical, showcasing a “Dr. Zaius” song set to the tune of Falco’s “Rock me, Amadeus”. Anyhow, back to the important stuff: Isn’t someone, somewhere, writing a mime-centered musical? That would be something fun to spring onto an audience…

  2. Tad says:

    @Holland: told you that sidekick was very Chris Kattan-esque! And I’m with you on watching the real movie whenever you get it on NetFlix.

    Love the Simpsons musical (Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!):

    I hate every ape I see
    From chimpan-a to chimpan-zee
    No, you’ll never make a monkey out of me

    Oh my God, I was wrong
    It was Earth all along

    You’ve finally made a monkey
    Apes: Yes, we’ve finally made a monkey
    Troy: Yes, you’ve finally made a monkey out of me
    Apes: Yes, we’ve finally made a monkey out of you

    Troy: I love you, Dr. Zaius!

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    Will I play piano anymore?
    Well I couldn’t before!

    Rock me Dr. Zaius!

  4. braak says:

    Well, my position of course is that musicals don’t have to do that. But that after eighty years of, yes, exactly, populist entertainment that evolved from dancing girls and two-man comedy acts, American Tradition musicals have developed this style of overblown EVERYTHING, with their giant fat grins plastered onto their faces at every second, every god damn line delivered at the top of their lungs.

    Graarrgh, mutter, mutter, mutter. Somebody get me some soup.

    I was going to say something about Planet of the Apes, the Musical, but you guys I think have quoted the whole thing. What’s funny is that it was clearly a joke, then–but doesn’t seem so implausible NOW, does it?

    I also liked on the Simpsons, Julie Taymor’s production of Itchy and Scratchy. Which episode, peculiarly, is written a little like 12th night, and ends with Martin playing Thick as a Brick on the flute while dressed as a 16th century minstrel. It’s like the writers thought to themselves, “You know, Chris Braak hasn’t laughed at some things in a while. Maybe we should make a Simpsons episode for him?”

  5. Tad says:

    @Holland: think we can convince Skonier and his singing buddies to perform Planet of the Apes the musical at his rehearsel dinner?

  6. Megan says:

    This results in an incredibly long scene devoted to these theatre-queen caricatures. I agree with this statement.

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    @Tad – No, I think it’s up to us to put on that performance.

    Hey, I have an idea, let’s ruin Skonier’s wedding!

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